Mairi McDonald: Rock'n'Roll Signature

Intricate and edgy, Glasgow-based Mairi McDonald designs garments with a distinctive rock'n'roll edge

Feature by Alexandra Fiddes | 17 Apr 2014

Growing up in a creative family in Largs, Mairi McDonald was always drawn to art and design, finding her inspiration in those closest to her. She says, "My mum is very artistic; she tells me about my gran who was a brilliant seamstress and unbelievably resourceful – when the Teddy Boy look came in she would tailor the trousers of the young guys in the area to give them the new ‘drainpipe’ look." 

Additionally, "My great aunt Joyce Wieland was a filmmaker and hugely accomplished mixed media artist." With a family pedigree like that, it seemed natural that McDonald would pursue a career in design in one form or another.

Her love of fashion design came through being playful and daring with her own wardrobe. "I’ve always been interested in constructing a look, I was never scared of being the first to wear new trends through my teens and loved mixing things up with vintage finds," she tells us. "I’ve always been obsessed with fashion and after spending the summer travelling Australia after school, I decided to turn my obsession into a profession."

After studying an HND in Fashion Design at Cardonald College, McDonald moved further afield to complete a BA Hons in Fashion Design Technology Womenswear at the extremely prestigious London College of Fashion. "It was an incredible platform and I felt lucky to be there. It really was the start of my career." McDonald explains.

As part of the degree course, students carried out a long term industry internship. Mairi was offered a place with international designer Julien MacDonald, renowned for his glamorous and luxurious collections. "I was working on intricate embellished pieces, which I'd then see twinkling on models such as Naomi Campbell backstage at London Fashion Week or on celebrities such as Kylie on the red carpet."

This internship was to prove to be a great success and Mairi continued to work with Julien MacDonald on catwalk showpieces and celebrity commissions once the work placement ended. "I was asked to stay on and ended up working on the team for over a year," she says. "At the end of my time there, Julien – who was also then Head Designer of Givenchy – invited me to work with the Textile Designer. "

The highlight of this time was co-­producing a macramé coat for the Paris Couture show, an incredible achievement for such a young designer. " To have a piece in the Paris catwalk show before I graduated was just unbelievable!" McDonald exclaims.

After such a glittering start in the industry and after finishing her degree, McDonald spent time at high profile luxury international and national brands, going on to build an extensive and diverse design career across womenswear, menswear and textile design.

She explains, "I have a vast knowledge of the industry and I have learned where my strengths lie and have a good understanding of what works commercially."

This deep commercial understanding and time spent learning from working for hugely successful and influential fashion brands motivated McDonald into taking the risk of launching her own label in 2013. Her debut collection named Electric Eclectic was previewed at Edinburgh International Fashion Festival in July and McDonald was quickly awarded a prestigious Scotland Re:Designed New Talent Award in November. Mairi McDonald launched to an exclusive, international audience in London in early 2014.

The Electric Eclectic collection is heavily influenced by the rock'n'roll aesthetic and is full of stunning contrasts – think edgy but luxuriously delicate and full of attitude yet with a sprinkling of Bohemian flare. Mcdonald says, "The Mairi McDonald label is explorative of the unconventional dark beauty within key textiles, dishevelled for a rock 'n' roll edge."

What is she particularly inspired by? " Iconic women in and around the music scene! The debut collection was inspired by the girlfriends of the Rolling Stones in the 60s, Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg." Not forgetting the more contemporary embodiments of the look, "Kate Moss, Sky Ferreira, Alison Mosshart and Daisy Lowe are also perfect present day muses for this collection."

Adding that, "The 90s Grunge scene is a significant influence on the signature of my label. The Grunge spirit is something that is always around and has led me to focus on laidback glamour creating pieces that are effortlessly cool."

Electric Eclectic "Tells the story of the girl with the band. Travelling the world in search of something different, something iconic to add to her eclectic wardrobe." She continues, "This character is attracted to the laidback L.A. vibe and her style reflects an element of Californian cool with a dark, rebellious edge."

The United States isn't the only place to shape McDonald's work, with local Scottish fabrics and traditional craftsmanship making a big impact. She explains, "The knit is always a starting point for me, developing intricate, deconstructed ideas, Scottish cotton lace fits perfectly with my aesthetic and it's important to me to have Scottish heritage fabrics." Cobweb-like knitwear, which when you look closely is sometimes woven to create a rose and thorn motif, is speckled with tiny Swarovski crystals. Pieces are also made with soft lamb nappa (leather) and suede, which is printed, laser cut and embroidered. These beautiful fabrics create highly wearable and covetable pieces rich in detail.

This level of craftsmanship within the construction of her pieces is paramount to her brand ethos. "I create edited collections with lengthy processes involved in each garment to come to fruition and the result is pieces that will be ‘forever’ in your wardrobe."

An aspect that you can see in the fine details and garment shapes is McDonald's passion for vintage fashion, where she creates an eclectic look by mixing influences; from Victorian silhouettes and elements, along with 60s and 70s bohemian styling. "I have spent time in my career trawling vintage markets in Paris and London for inspiration and it is still a starting point for my initial research today," she tells us, adding, "Collecting ideas and setting my brief for the season is my favourite part of the process."

McDonald's design process always has her overall brand in mind. "I have to truly believe in the initial direction and ensure it works with my label’s signature. I then start experimenting with textile sampling, fabric and colour research before moving onto silhouette ideas."

She explains, "I’m committed to growing and evolving my brand into a successful business whilst establishing my own distinctive signature. I want to expand the brand nationally and internationally with recent interest from international buyers. I’ll continue to build and develop my label, taking a beautiful product and creating a desirable, successful brand."

Since its launch last year the Mairi McDonald brand has gone from strength to strength extremely rapidly. McDonald says, "People in the industry have been really supportive of what I’m creating. Sarah Murray, owner of Jane Davidson Boutique in Edinburgh, has been really encouraging. We first met at Scotland Re:Designed in November and Sarah was excited about the product and is now one of our luxury stockists." 

She adds that mentoring from advisers throughout the Cultural Enterprise Office's Fashion Foundry programme has been, "hugely valuable in developing my business."

At the moment Mairi McDonald is stocked by several high-end online retailers such as Not Just A Label and Thoroughly British. From June, Jane Davidson boutique on Thistle Street in Edinburgh (which was awarded Draper's 'Best Premium Independent Award' in 2013) will stock a range of Mairi McDonald pieces, where they will sit alongside the likes of Missoni, Issa, Diane Von Furstenberg and Victoria Beckham.

And what's next for the designer? "I have exciting plans around the launch of the next collection later in the year. The next few months will be very busy in the studio creating the new collection which I can’t wait to share..." We're certainly looking forward to that!

@Mairi_McDonald Photographer: Levi McDonald MUA Molly Sheridan Model: Daniela Parducci Joplin: Scottish black lace and silk dress, £725 Mosshart: Bespoke rose knit intertwined with Swarovski elements, £1350 Cobain: soft suede dress with original rose illustration print, £525